The Lighter Side of Darkness

by Roger Johns

During a recent interview and book talk I was asked if there were any persistent themes in my writing. I knew I was going to be asked this question, and I had laboriously prepared my answer, but when it came time to speak the answer, my prepared remarks evaporated from my mind and a completely different set of words came out of my mouth, instead—something to the effect of “I like to write about redemption, specifically about characters for whom the benefit of redemption is greater than the cost, even though sometimes the cost is staggering.”

After my part of the program was over, one of the audience members asked if my response to the theme question meant I wrote noir fiction.

“I don’t think so,” I replied.

“But there’s so much darkness and violence in your books.”

“Yes, but . . .” And that got me to thinking about the boundary between darkness and noir.

While there are any number of definitions of what constitutes noir storytelling—snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, bad decisions by desperate people, inescapable doom regardless of how determinedly and righteously the protagonist strives, and hope as the cruel bait-and-switch dangled by the Fates for their own amusement seem to be consistent motifs. On these criteria, I consider Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, along with a great many other monumental works of literary fiction to fall into the noir category.

Not so in the stories I write, even though the story lines in both of my novels and all of my short stories unspool in the context of rather grim circumstances accompanied in some cases by shocking violence. And not so in the crime fiction I tend to enjoy the most.

This is not to say that I don’t enjoy a well-written piece of noir fiction—I do. In fact, at present, I’m binge-reading several issues of Rock and a Hard Place, one of the premier journals of short noir fiction. It’s just that my heart has a stronger affinity for stories in which doom is not inevitable, in which the protagonist’s striving has a chance of making life better, in which the trickster Fates are outplayed at their own game. Regardless of the darkness in my stories, there’s light at the ends of nearly all those tunnels and it’s not the proverbial oncoming train.

It’s the cost-benefit analysis that, for me, distinguishes between noir fiction and stories that simply occur under dark circumstances. If the cost of redemption is greater than what’s gained by achieving it, then it’s a bad bargain. If the cost, no matter how great, is less than what the protagonist’s striving brings about, it is, to me, a tale of heroism, regardless of the atmospherics. I like tales in which the protagonist’s journey is meaningful in the sense that finding the light becomes at least a possibility.

Such was the case with Clarice Starling, the protagonist in Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs—a book I think of as one of the darkest, most stunningly violence-laden works of crime fiction of its generation. Yet, it’s a book in which the protagonist and the antagonist are almost perfectly evenly matched, and, albeit at tremendous personal cost, Clarice achieves redemption for herself and others—a reason, I think, that accounts for its enduring popularity.

I wish I’d thought of all this to say to the person at the book talk, to convince him that I was not writing noir, because I don’t think my simple denial was convincing.

If you have thoughts on the dividing line between noir, and merely dark, please send a comment to this post.

Roger Johns is the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries, along with short stories published by, or forthcoming from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, Black Beacon Books, Mystery Weekly Magazine, and Yellow Mama, among others. You can visit his website at: http://www.rogerjohnsbooks.com

3 thoughts on “The Lighter Side of Darkness

  1. Great post, Roger. I agree that your books are not noir. Yes, there is darkness, but it’s not so all encompassing that readers (at least this one), feels a sense of dread and hopelessness. Although I, too, read noir, I don’t wish to write it. I write stories where, no matter how many obstacles my protagonist faces, there is still hope. And I prefer stories with a happy ending–the bad guy ends up in handcuffs or dead, and sometimes the hero even gets the girl in the end.

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    1. Thanks, Brian. I think there’s a lot to learn from skilled noir authors, in terms of how to create a mood or a character, hence my steady diet or noir reading.

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  2. Roger, great post! I’ll second Brian’s comment. I don’t get a noir feel from your books either. I prefer a story where there’s a chance, no matter how dim, that the character can find redemption as opposed to an inevitable downward spiral into doom. I think you manage that balance very well.

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